Chelsea strode to the easiest of Champions League victories as they won 4-0 against Qarabag in Azerbaijan on Wednesday night. The Premier League champions confirmed their place in the last 16 with a match to spare.
Antonio Conte rotated his squad for the trip to Baku ahead of the vital clash with Liverpool this weekend. Eden Hazard started up front, David Luiz returned from the naughty step, while Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko were rested. 17-year-old Dujon Sterling made the bench. Changes were hardly surprising given that the squad were jumping on a six hour flight straight after the match, and not expected home until gone 3am.
The stunning Olympic stadium was a fitting location for the early Champions League kick-off. The Qarabag fans created a bellowing atmosphere, even though some were sitting a fair distance from the pitch due to the running track.
The first 10 minutes were quiet. Very quiet indeed. Once the minutes had reached double figures, though, Qarabag sprang into action. A sharp chance came for Michel down Chelsea’s inside-left channel, and his shot cannoned of the post. An early warning for Conte, with Thibaut Courtois left helpless on the ground.
In the 19th minute the match was changed. Clumsy, rather than reckless, defending from Qarabag’s captain, Rasad Sadiqov, brought down Willian. Sadiqov was shown a red card, and Hazard stood over the ball a few yards from the spot. As he almost always does, the Belgian rolled it past the goalkeeper to put the Blues 1-0 up.
No doubt that fortune was on Chelsea’s side with the card, if not the penalty itself.
Should any neutrals have chosen to watch this match, that was a pretty disappointing few minutes. The missed chance, the penalty and the red card formed a bitter triumvirate for the Azerbaijani side.
Chelsea fans were soon even happier. In the 36th minute, Cesc Fabregas instigated a flowing move in the final third. Pedro received it first, flicking it to Willian, who rolled it to Hazard. The Belgian then showed his awareness as he held the ball for just long enough for Willian to arrive. Hazard backheeled directly into the path of the Brazilian, who opened his body to put it calmly past the ‘keeper. Game well and truly over.
Unsurprisingly, Chelsea dominated the ball for the remainder of the first half. The match became the perfect backing track for an evening nap.
Cesar Azpilicueta ventured forward, which only exaggerated the attack versus defence nature of the match. It was like a training exercise for both teams, but one would hope the intensity is slightly higher from Chelsea in training. Frustration clearly got the better of some Qarabag defenders, who were keen to knock over any of Chelsea’s diminutive front three when they found space.
The second half began to a similar pattern. Fabregas was sitting in the pocket picking out passes like Aaron Rodgers, while the pacey receivers dragged the Qarabag defence all over the field. Of course, this would be in a world where the opposition had no defensive linemen whatsoever.
As the clock edged towards the hour mark, the main point of intrigue was Conte’s substitutions.
In the 58th minute, Conte made his first. It was not Hazard, Azpilicueta or Kante taken off, but Marcos Alonso. Gary Cahill replaced him. Alonso is the only natural left wing-back in the squad, making him one of the most in need of protection.
After forcing a sharp save, Hazard was the next man for a rest. Morata was brought on his place, and those who cannot cope without a ‘recognised forward’ were able to breathe a little easier.
Morata was quickly in the action. He found himself in a race for the ball, and was a matter of centimetres from a one-on-one. Moments later, the Spaniard was again clear. A measured short pass from Antonio Rudiger put Morata with just the keeper to beat. His trickling short agonisingly went wide of the far post.
Chelsea soon had their third. It was again from the spot, and again a result of a rather gentle pull on Willian. The Brazilian did his trademark shift of the ball to the right from a standing start, forcing the defender to let him race away or pull him back. A tug on his arm was enough for Willian to stop in his tracks, and the penalty was awarded.
Fabregas then stepped up. He scored first time, but encroachment from Davide Zappacosta caused the rather particular referee to order a retake. Fabregas scored it again, into the same corner.
A truly rare moment followed for Chelsea fans as Danny Drinkwater replaced N’golo Kante. That wrapped up the substitutions from Conte, but did leave many wondering why Sterling was not given an opportunity. You would think that 3-0 up, with qualification secured, against 10 men was perfect.
Willian continued to torment the hosts even in a now sleepy match. Rapidly shifting onto his right again, he fired a low, fierce shot into the bottom-right corner from 20 yards or so.
Given the dominance, it would be unfair to say 4-0 was flattering for Chelsea. The two penalties were soft, but the Blues played with flair, and a smidgen of swagger.
Resting several key players ahead of the trip to Anfield, and securing qualification in match five; the trip to Baku could not have gone any better for Chelsea.